As soon as the Civil War began, blacks outside the rebel territory volunteered for the army. Some army leaders sought to recruit blacks as soldiers, but President Abraham Lincoln’s administration countermanded such actions. The Confederacy, however, relied on slave labor to construct fortifications and assist in related combat service support tasks. By 1862, after significant military setbacks, Congress lifted the ban on blacks in the military and approved their use as Union Army laborers.
A painting commissioned by the U.S. National Guard depicts the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment attacking Confederate soldiers at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863.